Spider venom could prove unlikely source of an agricultural revolution

Gary Hartley
4 min readMay 9, 2024

Originally published at Farming Future Food.

Greek and Italian farmers have been granted temporary use of a novel bioinsecticide to tackle one of the Mediterranean’s costliest pests — and its origins read more like a comic book story than traditional agronomy.

The pollinator-friendly pesticide, SPEAR® LEP, is based on peptides found in spider venom. It has been proven to be highly effective against tomato leaf miner (Tuta absoluta), a pest that has been known to cause yield losses in Europe of up to €350,000/ha. Its effectiveness extends to populations resistant to commonly used synthetic pesticides, while having negligible broader ecological impacts.

But while SPEAR LEP marks a new option for growers looking for more environmentally friendly crop protection products, for Vestaron Corporation, the US-based company that developed it, its arrival in the southern Mediterranean follows nearly two decades of research.

The technology’s origin story

The development of the SPEAR technology is certainly unusual. Australian scientists studying spiders stumbled across the Blue Mountains funnel-web spider, an arachnid with one of the most complex venoms ever discovered.

As the spider’s venom can be fatal to mammals, it seemed an unlikely candidate for use as a human- and pollinator-friendly agricultural product. But looking deeper, the scientists discovered that some of the venom’s components were only toxic to insects that fall prey to the spider — and those insects happen to be pests which threaten the production of fruits, vegetables and crops.

Realising the venom’s potential role in agriculture, Glenn King, professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Queensland University, filed for patents, and in 2005 Vestaron was founded to bring the research to farmers.

“We knew we had something that was really effective and could be targeted, similar to synthetics,” said Dr Robert Kennedy, chief science officer at Vestaron.

Dr Kennedy said large chemical companies had dismissed the potential for using peptides at a high volume, but Vestaron was committed to using this promising technology to solving problems in a way that no one ever had before.

“We were focused on how to make enough peptides to be effective at a reasonable cost, how to get peptides into the insect and, importantly, how to get regulatory agencies to understand the products and approve them for use.”

Hadronyche versuta, blue mountains funnel web spide
The spider of the moment, Hadronyche versuta

Making venom viable

The production challenges came first, as it’s difficult to extract funnel-web spider venom in large enough quantities to produce at scale.

The Vestaron team developed a way to synthesise and optimise the genes from the venom and put them into yeast, enabling them to produce the product through a fermentation process at a commercially viable scale.

Next, the researchers had to find a way to get the peptides created during fermentation into the target insects — an essential step to protect crops.

“It’s different than a spider catching an insect prey and injecting its venom directly into it,” said Dr Kennedy. “Our product is ingested by the insect, so we need a means to allow the peptides to survive the insects’ gut and become available in the bloodstream.

“What we ultimately did was combine the peptide with a very low dose of another natural product, the widely used insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which disrupts the gut and makes is somewhat permeable, allowing the insecticidal peptide to get through.”

Finally, the company needed regulatory approval. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency granted SPEAR a bioinsecticide classification due to it having a relatively low-risk class of molecules. This classification gave the product a comparatively smooth regulatory path, and in 2020 producers in the US and Canada were given the go-ahead to use it on their crops.

New options for Europe’s farmers

Vestaron’s efforts are now focused on bringing this novel technology to farmers in Europe, starting with SPEAR LEP to help growers tackle infestations of tomato leaf miner — one of the major issues putting pressure on the Mediterranean tomato industry.

In February, Greek’s Ministry of Rural Development and Food granted an emergency authorisation for tomato growers in Greece to use SPEAR LEP from 1 March to 28 June 2024. Similar applications for emergency use authorisation have been made in other Mediterranean countries, with Italy the latest country to have their application granted.

Italian farmers can use the product between 28 March and 25 July 2024 — a development welcomed by Italian grower group Società Cooperativa Agricola Aurora, which petitioned the Ministry of Health for the emergency approval.

“Having access to effective biocontrols like SPEAR LEP is vital to helping producers reduce pesticide use — supporting profitable production while lowering farming’s impact on the environment,” said Giuseppe Buggea, Aurora’s president.

“With a unique mode of action, SPEAR LEP provides Italian tomato growers with a sustainable solution to use in rotation with other categories of pesticides, helping to protect crop quality and yields while preserving the efficacy of the limited range of products available to combat this prevalent pest.”

Now comes the push for full approval. Vestaron has already made a submission to the European Commission for use of the product across Europe, and it also has plans to introduce other products targeting some of the continent’s other major crop pests with peptide products.

“Peptide-based bioinsecticides such as SPEAR LEP represent a powerful new category of products to effectively control pests while fighting resistance,” said Juan Estupinan, Vestaron’s interim CEO and president.

“Such tools are imperative for growers and offer advantages for workers and in-field specialists, beneficials, the environment and consumers.”

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Gary Hartley

Writer of different things. Come for the insects, stay for the odd literary works, or vice versa. @garyfromleeds https://medium.com/insectsandthat